Gravity – A 3D Experience

Gravity is the first film I’ve seen in 3D. The specs took a little time to get used to!  But what a film!! One of the best films of the last decade in my book. Very simple story and plot  but the realisation and the dramatic tension built up right from the beginning last right until the final scene. And the 3D actually works in favour of the story and the viewer engagement rather than being an addon gimmick. Watch the teardrop float towards you. Marvellous. Best Film Oscar of 2014. Well deserved. Sandra Bullock should have got the Best Female Oscar aswell.

Continuity Editing

I just reread my previous post on Continuity vs Montage Editing and thought that I undervalued continuity editing and concentrated too much on the montage end of the spectrum. I just want to rebalance the equation a little bit.

Continuity editing is very much Hollywood in that directors wanted to tell stories that were relatively easy to follow for anyone who came to see the films. Whereas montage editing came from a much more artistic background where the appreciation of art was elitist in concept, continuity editing was designed to make following cinematic stories accessible to anyone and heavily linked to the business of filmmaking. If your punters cannot understand or follow your films then they are unlikely to come back to the cinema and spend their hard earned cash.

So, a new grammar of film was born to make popular films or movies that would entice a large audience to watch them. The elements of continuity editing contained a reliance on chronology. Generally, actions happened in actual time sequence even if the time was shortened or lengthened for dramatic effect. One action leads to a consequential action. This was occasionally interrupted when directors began to use flashbacks to add depth and understanding to stories.

Secondly, two adjacent scenes were usually linked in some way. It could be one of a number of ways. The same location, the same people. There was usually at least one constant in both scenes. There was also the technique of the dialogue of the second scene coming in before the visuals of the second scene – a linking mechanism. Vice versa the dialogue of the first scene foreshadows the location or persons of the next scene before you actually see it. That way, the audience can see how the scenes are joined and prevents them having to think too much about the progression of the story. They are  merely being swept along with the director’s vision and narrative of the film. It’s like the director is whispering in the collective ear of the audience explaining what is going on. In a purely montage film, the director is more like an reclusive artist who says to the audience make of it what you will. There may be a message hidden in there but you have to actively work to find it.

If it wasn’t for continuity editing then cinema would be very elitist and cinemas would be like art galleries today. It made the cinema open to everyone, young and old, rich or poor, educated or uneducated. It allowed the audience to be entertained and formed the bedrock for current popular cinema.

The New Epics

I thought I would just put down a few thoughts about what I call “The New Epics” – films with scope, ambition, flair, scale, and energy – that tell gripping stories of the human condition in a way that grabs the eyes and senses.

You won’t find these at the cinemas regrettably but on TV. Lately, there have been several series that look like epics in that they are cinematic across a wide canvas telling cracking stories in vigorous and visceral ways. The two new Spartacus series create a whole new Roman aesthetic – combining razor sharp scripts and interesting dialogue with comic strip ultra violence, outrageous sex and a compelling revenge plot. The look and feel is hot dirty and sweaty and the CGI is graphic and excellent. All of the story spreads around the naked ambition of Batiatus, the lanister, played with gusto by John Hannah and his wife Lucretia, Lucy Lawless, and their vicious and implacable drive to raise their social standing. The two series may be garish and certainly not for the prudish but they have epic visions and would not look out of place in the cinema.

The second of my new epics is Game of Thrones. Where the Spartacus series are tightly bound by their location, Game of Thrones has much loftier ambitions in terms of scope and storytelling. Think Lord of the Rings meets The Godfather. This is a full blooded fantasy thriller, again with gratuitous sex on occasion, but populated by many dark and devious characters inhabiting many diverse lands. It has a feeling more of Elizabeth with its foreboding and suspense and some surprising twists. Don’t expect your favourite characters to prevail.

The portrayal of the various lands and their peoples adds enormous interest. It takes a while to take in the host of characters and cultures but it is worth it. The sets themselves are of epic proportions and the opening credits are spectacular in showing the territory covered by the story. This is probably why it could not have been made into a standard epic film and needs the series format for the plot and the characters to be absorbed by the audience. The Winterfell folk are portrayed as dour Northerners whilst those at King’s Landing are devious Southerners and the savage horse tribes across the sea add yet more colour and depth to the plot and backdrop. We have yet to see how the monsters from beyond The Wall will affect the balance of power. Hopefully, this will manifest itself in the second series. One of the revelations of the series is the performance of Peter Dinklage as Tyrian Lanister, the dwarf son of the fearsome Tywin Lanister, who treads a fine line between lovable rogue and monster like his father. Add into the mix the possibility of dragons and fearsome creatures beyond The Wall and I cannot wait for the next series.

 

A different kind of new epic is Boardwalk Empire. It is famously known for having the involvement of Martin Scorcese (who also directs the pilot episode) as a producer and having a major part of the Boardwalk at Atlantic City rebuilt in painstaking detail. You could dismiss this as yet another gangster  film or series but you would not be giving the series the credit it deserves. It can be seen as a political story of how Atlantic City was built and is a microcosm of the birth of the modern USA. It shows you the early beginnings of the Mafia and the blood stained struggles for power with the fledgling FBI beginning its rise to prominence after the first World War.

At the centre of it is Enoch (Nucky) Thompson, treasurer of Atlantic City, trying to maintain his hold of the marionette strings in the face of challenges to his authority from outsiders. Played by Steve Buscemi, Thompson is a bit of an enigma, the ultimate cool political wheeler dealer who starts to show compassion to the young widow played by Kelly Macdonald whose abusive husband is murdered on his instructions. Interwoven into the story are well known characters, Al Capone, “Lucky” Luciano and Arnold Rothstein, but the real character of the story is the Boardwalk itself. You have to marvel at the sets and the feel of the series. It reeks of the 1920s and the formal set pieces in the theatre transport you to that era effortlessly. Quality acting and attention to detail rank highly here. The one thing I did not particularly like was the pace of the action. It seemed interminably slow in parts, interspersed with occasional bouts of gratuitous sex that did not spur the plot along sufficiently. A little bit self indulgent if you ask me but I can forgive that for the memorable moments and plot twists. The teasing last episode of the first series is a cliffhanger intimating that all the people that Nucky depended on to maintain his hold of power, including his brother, were now plotting to get rid of him for their own various reasons. Friends becoming enemies. Watch your back Nuck.

Maybe this is a new category of filmed entertainment – the epic series. TV has become the natural home for such sprawling ambitious pieces that cannot fit into the cinema format. CGI has come of age and is becoming less expensive. It has become the medium to create the epic feel to the series. When directors of the stature of Spielberg and Scorcese start working within the TV medium it is time to take epic TV projects seriously.

Feature Film on the IPhone?

I read recently that the celebrated Korean director, Park Chan Wook, previously mentioned in posts is to shoot his next feature film using the IPhone. Or more properly IPhones. His idea is to test out the technological capabilities of the IPhone and the immediacy it brings to shooting scenes. However, this will be no YouTube, homemade effort as he intends to treat the project as any other film project in terms of scouting locations, scriptwriting, lighting, the full production cycle. This is a serious film maker trying something different to see if it can offer a new way of realising a story on film.

Instead of using one or two professional cameras he could use several IPhones from different shooting angles to generate a very fluid movement and energy to the story. There may be limitations of the kit especially outdoors and in long shots but if the story is mainly an “internal” one this may not cause any problems. In theory, anyone with a decent camera phone could do the same and there are many experiments on YouTube to testify to the effort. However, when a director of his standing says he is going to do it we all should sit up and listen. The results should be interesting in the very least given his track record so far with shocking and disturbing material.

Unforgiven – Screenplay Excellence

I watched Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” last night again and marvelled at the screenplay by David Webb Peoples. There are many things to admire about it.

As most of you will know the premise of Unforgiven is that a killer comes out of retirement after 11 years to do one last killing for money when he hears about a prostitute who has been disfigured by two cowboys. The story follows his journey and explores the debunking of western myths and the savagery underneath the newly civilised West.

What interests me is that there is not a word out of place. Every word has its place and use in terms of furthering the plot. There is no fluff or padding, nothing is redundant. Yet, between those words and the superb actors – Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Frances Fisher, and Richard Harris – delivering those lines, the whole world of the new west is exposed. The heroic myths of the cowboy and gunslinger are set up to be knocked down. The screenplay allows the actors to finely draw their characters through its actions and few words.

It is a slow burner. There is no rush about the action. Even the final shootout is extended longer than most western shootouts to show the grim reality of the situation. The change of Eastwood’s character from vaguely sympathetic to mean, cold blooded killer at the end is quite chilling and surprising to the other characters left alive in the town.

The only major sub plot is that of the fate of English Bob, the dandified gunslinger hired by the Railroad company to shoot absconding Chinese coolies, with his biographer who paints a romantic picture of the gunslinger for his publishers. His meeting with Little Bill Daggett, town marshall, betrays the reality of his encounters and enables us to see the ferocious interior of Daggett despite his early affable exterior.

The plot is slight and spare. It could have been an episode of a western series. But the attention to detail and the excellence of the screenplay make it a riveting film with suspense and interest in the characters throughout. If you want to look at how to blend plot, character and dialogue seamlessly to deliver a colourful and interesting story then go no further than this.

Elizabeth – The Ultimate Political Thriller

I watched Elizabeth on the TV the other night. Again. It must be the third or fourth time that I have seen the film. It never ceases to amaze me. It is the ultimate political thriller and still manages to rack up the tension even though you know she survives and thrives in the final analysis. The film stars Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth and a host of British character actors including Daniel Craig as a murderous priest and Richard Attenborough. It is directed by Shekar Kapoor. It is a type of film that the British do exceptionally well.

Elizabeth is the story of Elizabeth I just before she came to the throne and her precarious early years as monarch. We are drawn into the dangerous world of 16th century England by means of the first scene where several heretics (protestants in a mainly catholic country) are burnt at the stake. Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, is on the throne and Elizabeth, the offspring of Henry and Ann Boleyn, is in great danger as she is protestant. The threat to her is palpable and many at court are plotting to have her killed. At one point she appears to be on the verge of execution in the Tower of London but manages to stay alive despite the odds.

On the death of Mary, she becomes queen but her perils do not end there. England is weak and bankrupt and she has to play a dangerous political game to avoid being married off to create alliances with the other great European powers, France and Spain. There are also more attempts on her life. Within all of this is a love story between her and Robert, Earl of Dudley, played by Joseph Fiennes, which ends in tears.

The film works so well in that the tension is established early on and continues unabated throughout the film. Cate Blanchett’s performance is a masterclass in moving Elizabeth from a young, selfish and headstrong girl to an assertive, determined and ruthless woman and by the end of the film to a true English icon.

There are many film references. The beginning (yet another Great Beginning) has the same effect as the beginning to Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac where knights fight and kill each other in quite graphic and gory ways over the opening credits of the film. This has the effect of shocking the audience at the beginning and lessens the need for any further gore until much later in the film. At the same time it sets the scene admirably. The burning of the heretics has a similar effect. You are on the edge of your seat from the word go.

The conspiracies at court in Elizabeth mirror the wonderful, swirling court scenes of La Reine Margot, the French film about the massacre of French protestants by the Catholics. The sharp dialogue and the discussions behind closed doors and within the crowds enhance the feeling of foreboding.

Elizabeth even ruthlessly dispatches a number of the conspirators towards the end of the film in a montage sequence not unlike that near the end of The Godfather. However, she leaves her erstwhile lover, Dudley, alive as a reminder of how close she came to death.

Not that the film is totally without humour. There is a hilarious episode where Elizabeth discovers that her French suitor, The Duke of Anjou, is actually a cross dresser. But this is mere comic relief before the tension is ramped up again.

If you like films that have politics, plotting and conspiracy, then Elizabeth is a well-acted piece that delivers. It is a period film but it aspires more to contemporary political thrillers than the English period drama heritage.You are not just wowed with the gowns but the subtlety of the plot and the intrigue woven into the story. It is a very different film to its successor, Elizabeth -The Golden Age, in terms of tone and tension.

Elizabeth is in my list of top films because it has the ingredients for a “great film”. It has an excellent story converted to a riveting screenplay. The acting by the principals is exemplary and believable. Cate Blanchett’s stunning performance shines at the heart of the movie. The direction is sure-footed, without being particularly innovative, and ratchets up the tension at the appropriate points in the film. The film looks good and the period settings don’t disappoint. There are so many pluses to this film that it has to be up in the great films category.

Westerns – Part 5 – Rebirth

The western as a genre was dead until 1989 but was revived by, of all things, a made for TV mini series directed by an Englishman. That series was Lonesome Dove, a four part drama, that rekindled an American love for the western. It was made for the small screen but it had epic ambitions and made the old western traditions seem new and exciting. It is old Hollywood at the heart of it and retreads the traditional story lines making them seem fresh and interesting. The acting is exemplary as Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall bring life and emotion to their characters. It has all the right ingredients, spectacular landscapes, great supporting cast, romance, action and black-hearted villains. It draws you into its world totally. It won two Golden Globes and countless other awards and spawned sequels and spin offs. The American public took it to their heart.

In the same year came one of the best of the recent westerns. Glory was the story of the first black regiment to fight for the North in the civil war and how they overcame prejudice from their own side to gain respect and dignity for blacks in America. Directed by Edward Zwick, it lit the tinderbox for the careers of a young Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and told a moving story about the difficulties faced by them and the young white officer charged with leading their regiment.  The ending always brings a lump to my throat when I see it. Oscar glory followed with 3 gongs for best supporting actor (Washington) and best cinematography (Freddie Francis).

Westerns became cool again. The next year we were treated to Dances With Wolves (1990), a stirring Kevin Costner western, looking at prairie life from the point of view of the native Americans and a disaffected cavalry officer. Costner collected 2 Oscars for it and went on to make other westerns but never reached the heights that he did with this film. Open Range was a return to form but Dances With Wolves was the pinnacle.

Clint Eastwood successfully returned to westerns in 1992 both acting in and directing Unforgiven. This film was a gritty and realistic account of how Clint’s character is paid to avenge the disfigurement of a prostitute. It is a character-led piece with occasional bursts of explosive and bloody action. The supporting cast are pitch perfect and some of the myths of the west are exposed. It won 4 Oscars including best picture and best director.

Gettysburg (1993) directed by Ronald F. Maxwell recreated the famous civil war battle and gained many admirers for its attention to detail and stirring battle scenes. It also spawned a prequel – Gods and Generals (2003) – showing the events leading up to civil war.

So the western is alive and well and can still thrive in the mainstream. When Spielberg does mini series about westerns (Into The West) and old stories can be reinvigorated to reach a new generation then it will always have a place in Hollywood.

Westerns – Part 4 – Demise

The western died out in the early 1980s following the monumental disaster of Heaven’s Gate (1980). Not only did it bring a film studio to its knees financially but it made other studios extremely wary of investing in the genre. The underlying reasons though are not so much about the financial profligacy of the film but the fact the American public did not want to hear the message of the film which washed the country’s dirty linen in public. The Johnson County Wars was a particularly shameful and sensitive subject where the authorities sanctioned the murder of immigrant settlers. The film maker, Michael Cimino, who had had unbridled success with Vietnam film, The Deer Hunter, was given free reign to make a film exposing this dark period of American history. It flopped at the box office. The studio fell and Cimino was ostracised for many years. There is a previous post that goes into more detail.

But it could be argued that this was only the final nail in the coffin of the western at that time. In an attempt to find new story lines, film makers were starting to trawl the later period of the western era. This is when the west was becoming less wild and more civilised and the corporations were beginning to move in. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) was almost an elegy for the old style cowboys who felt the cold hand of progress on them and foreshadowed the demise of the western. They were old misfits in a changing world. The same could be said in many ways for the earlier Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The march of progress in America caught up with them and they had to move to Bolivia to recreate the old days.

The Missouri Breaks (1976) provided another downbeat addition to the genre albeit a quirky battle of the acting egoes that were Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. The tale has similarities to the later Tom Horn in that a “regulator”, Marlon Brando, is hired by a wealthy and sophisticated rancher to deter rustlers. Tom Horn (1980) starring Steve McQueen as the titular lead encapsulates this downbeat fall of the western empire. His character is an old style cowboy turned “regulator” of rustlers who eventually falls foul of the new power in the land – big business. Hollywood was providing its own epitaph for the western.

Heaven’s Gate was just the clincher and it would be nearly a decade before another significant western would be made.

Westerns – Part 3 – Easterns

John Ford’s westerns have influenced so many directors throughout the world so it was not so much of a surprise when “westerns” started being made outside the Hollywood system.

The most famous mutation of the traditional western was the spaghetti western. These were films made largely in Europe (Spain being the most believable location to double as Arizona or Texas) by Italians mainly that created an identifiable sub genre with its own characteristics.

Important directors on the world stage came out of this movement such as Sergio Leone and Bernardo Bertolucci. Leone put his case forward as one of the world’s great directors with such films as the Fistful of Dollars trilogy and Once upon a Time in the West, a candidate for the greatest western of all time. Bertolucci, at this stage in his career was involved as a scriptwriter for Leone and emerged later on as a fine director in his own right outside the western genre.

There were scores of spaghetti westerns made during the period 1965-1980. They were recognisable for their stylistic differences to the traditional westerns. In particular, the use of closeups of the characters’ expressive faces usually dripping with sweat or smoking a cigarette before an explosively violent scene ramped up the tension in these westerns. The villains were colourful and hideous and psychopathic. No horrific act was out of their range. They even made that Hollywood western stalwart, Henry Fonda, into a steely-eyed child killer in the epic Once Upon a Time in the West.

Heroes were not the archetypal heroes of old westerns. They were much more complex. More like anti heroes. Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name in the Fistful of Dollars trilogy typifies this. He is probably the least disagreeable character in the film but is no angel himself. In Once Upon  a Time in the West the main protagonists are symbols more than characters telling the painful story of the opening up of the west. None is without sin but there is a chance of redemption by the end for some of them.

Spaghetti westerns are violent and sometimes unpredictable interms of plot and ending. One notable example of this is The Great Silence directed by Sergio Corbucci. It is sometimes referred to as the Alpine western with its backdrop of mountains and snow and is a very dark tale with a completely miserable ending. No heroes riding off into the sunset here. Very little light relief during the film aswell. Italian directors were definitiely experimenting with stories, characters and visuals to create unique films that could still be called westerns.

No self-respecting spaghetti western was complete without a quirky yet mesmerising soundtrack from Ennio Morricone that emphasised the difference between this western and the traditional Hollywood western. Sometimes beautiful and evocative, sometimes downright irritating, Morricone’s soundtracks make the spaghetti westerns even more distinctive.

The western was also influenced from further east, Japan. Hollywood film makers saw the upsurge of spaghetti westerns and knew they would have to up their game. So they looked for new storylines and John Sturges used Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the template for The Magnificent Seven. Both of these films were successful in their own genre. Leone used the basic plot of Yojimbo directed by Kurosawa as his base line for A Fistful of Dollars. And yet Kurosawa openly acknowledged his regard for John Ford’s westerns. So chicken… egg?

Despite all the critical acclaim given to westerns, all was not well. By the mid 1980s the western was dead as a genre. Nobody was making significant western films. What happened? I’ll talk about that next time.